By: Lindsay Fortin, MPT
Falls due to a loss of balance are the leading cause of injury in adults over 65. In fact, one in three older adults will experience a fall each year resulting in injuries ranging from minor bruising to more serious injuries like dislocations, fractures or even head injuries. These injuries can require emergency room visits, hospital stays, surgery, and the person’s loss of function and independence. Unfortunately, many people see balance issues and falls as an unavoidable, untreatable side effect of aging, but loss of balance can be due to many causes. These can include, but are not limited to: vision or hearing deficits, dizziness secondary to blood pressure issues or medications, inner ear problems, neuropathy, impaired proprioception due to injury, or weaknesses.
Simple modifications to medications, eye glass prescriptions, and use of proper footwear can address some of these causes. Adequate lighting and picking up any hazardous items around the house, like scatter rugs, dog toys, or electric cords, can also help. A physical therapist can determine if a person is appropriate for a program to address an injury or weakness that may be contributing to balance deficits and discuss if the use of an assistive device may help prevent future falls. Regular exercise can help with circulation, mobility, and strength.
Tai chi has shown to be an especially effective form of exercise for the older population with a high fall risk. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that involves a series of slow, rhythmic movements to increase focus and relaxation. These movements require weight shifting, double and single leg stances, and are combined with head, trunk, and upper extremity motions. Tai chi is used in China for self-defense and meditation, but recent research has also shown tai chi to help improve balance, decrease fear of falls, increase strength, aerobic capacity, and endurance in adults over 65.
Tai chi can be performed by nearly anyone because it can be done standing, but also seated. It is low impact and very gentle on muscles and joints. It can be done in very little space with no equipment and at your own pace, which makes it a good option for those with a history of orthopedic injuries or surgeries, living in a small apartment or mobile home, on fixed incomes that are unable to buy gym memberships or exercise equipment, or with no previous exercise experience.
Falls are not an inevitable part of aging. There are many options to prevent falls and also to improve strength and balance once falls have already occurred. It is important to make sure we educate our patients about these options to help them stay safe and injury-free.